By Drew Wayland
“This is the OG,” said Sheel Chandra, grinning as he pulled a set of keys from his sweatpants pocket. The lone keychain in his collection is a black Hot Wheels car, a Cadillac ATS with spinning silver rims. “This is where it all started.”
The ATS on his keyring is a mirror image of the Cadillac in his driveway, only with more scratches and dings from years of childhood play. Chandra’s “big boy car” is well maintained, a sleek low-riding machine that serves as a testament to his love for vehicles that put the driver just inches from the road.
The rise of passion
“I had the super typical car person upbringing,” he said, “from the Hot Wheels to working on cars with my dad, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to start messing around with my own cars once I was old enough. Finding the community that comes with being into cars didn’t happen until I got to college.”
Chandra, 20, is the president of Carolina Cars, an organization that began as a UNC-Chapel Hill interest club and has since expanded to a community of over 130 drivers in the Triangle. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carolina Cars has become a thriving community of support and socially distant recreation for its members. Chandra founded the club in the beginning of 2019 with Max Nunez, a fellow car fanatic from his hometown of Cary, North Carolina.
“It was a little different for me,” said Nunez, “growing up I didn’t know much about cars at all until I was in high school and I stumbled into the local car community.” Nunez, who drives a 1998 five speed Honda Prelude, started hitching rides to car meets in Raleigh when he was 15 and fell in love with the culture.
“Cars feel different from other hobbies because it’s usually not something you actively participate in, like sports or art.” said Nunez. “It’s more about expression and enjoyment, creating an extension of yourself.” He pointed at his Prelude, customized with colorful interior lighting and a specialized turbo engine, “I look at that and I can say, ‘that’s me.’”
Cars have always brought people together, from the humble roots of the modern car meet-up in 1960s California to drag racing, drifting, and other vehicle sports that have emerged in the decades since.
The Triangle is home to one of the East Coast’s most active car scenes; there are weekly meets in Raleigh and Durham which host hundreds of cars in Cookout parking lots and empty warehouse loading zones. The meets begin as legal gatherings, but as the night goes on and rubber burns with increasing noise, the police routinely roll in to break up the events.
The start of it all
Chandra met Nunez at a Shell station in Cary, both on their way to a car meet in Raleigh back in 2018. Chandra wanted to look under the hood of Nunez’s Prelude, and when he saw the custom engine, he knew they would be friends for a long time.
“At the time we both independently had ideas about creating a car club at UNC but were pretty lost as to how we could make it happen,” said Nunez. “But when we had two brains on the project, both of us constantly talking about our cars and the meets we missed from back home, we were finally able to put something together.”
After struggling to find people who were interested in joining the club, Chandra suggested trying something a little unorthodox.
“I said to Max, ‘I have a crazy idea,’” Chandra said. “Let’s put the whip on the quad.”
Without seeking permission from the university, because according to Nunez, it’s “better to ask for forgiveness,” the two students woke up at the crack of dawn and drove a show car onto a brick plaza on UNC’s lower quad. By 8 a.m., university security was already preparing to tow the vehicle, but enough photos had been taken of the electric blue Subaru to spread the word about Carolina’s newest car community.
“We had over 70 people show up to our interest meeting after that,” says Chandra, “and once we had said our piece about what we wanted this car club to be, we told everyone they were free to go. Not a single person stood up, and we all hung out until like 1 in the morning.”
Over the next year, Carolina Cars became the kind of community that all college clubs strive to create. Members became close friends, went to meets together, helped each other with car builds and went driving down backroads on weekends. The feature events have always been the weekly cruises, where everyone gets together and drives a preset route, usually on two-lane roads in nearby Chatham County.
Not even the pandemic can separate them
The club was growing at a steady pace until March, when the university instructed clubs to end all in-person activity due to the coronavirus pandemic. Luckily, Chandra and Nunez knew that if there was anything one can do safely in a world of social distancing, it was driving cars.
“We’re really fortunate that we’ve seen even more growth and activity since COVID started,” says Chandra. “We stopped encouraging people to go to meets and instead started leaning heavily on our cruises, which get between 50 and 70 cars on a good day where they used to get 30 at most.”
Chandra likes to show off the organization’s group chat, which he claims is the most active group chat at Carolina.
“Look at that,” he said, pointing at his phone screen. A notification from the Carolina Cars group buzzes in every few seconds. “That’s basically all the time. Hundreds of messages a day, about cars obviously but mostly just friends talking and helping each other out with things.”
Nunez adds that he has to put the chat on mute if he ever wants to use his phone for something else.
As the community continues to grow, Chandra and Nunez’s friendship strengthens alongside it. They formed their own ‘bubble’ during the pandemic, with Nunez quarantining in a tent outside of Chandra’s house for two weeks, just so they could work on a 1970s Jeep restoration they started back in January.
“Cars bring people together; that’s what we’re here for,” said Nunez. “It sucks having to be apart from my friends and family, but Sheel and I get to drive our backroads and fix our cars up whenever we want. That’s really the release I need in a time like this.”
On any given Saturday morning, they will be out on the pavement, taking tight turns at speeds most people (including the police) might find aggressive, enjoying the thrill and company of someone who shares their passions.
“Max still kicks my a– on Luther Road,” Chandra joked, “but I usually get a smoother ride than him on just about every other spot we hit.”
“He’s just talking sh–,” said Max, “he’s jealous ‘cause the Caddy can’t keep up with me.”
Edited by Sarah DuBose